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Economics and Immigration

September 29, 2010

Yesterday, I went to a forum hosted by the Hamilton Project called “Crossing Borders: From Myth to Sound Immigration Policy.” The project released a report called Ten Economic Facts About Immigration that straightens out some myths on the issue. For example, immigrants aren’t taking our jobs, the taxes they pay actually exceed the cost of services they use, and immigrants bring a diverse set of skills and educational backgrounds.

The panelists agreed that both low- and high-skilled immigrants were not only beneficial but essential to the U.S. economy and innovative American spirit that we believe sets us apart from the rest of the world. There were a few things that I found particularly interesting, and I’ll give a shot at explaining them.

Contrary to the argument that immigrants take out jobs, unskilled and low-skilled labor increases the pool of available workers for unskilled jobs, which increases production and creates competition for native workers in higher-level positions. Production increases because a larger pool of workers means employers can open more restaurants and build more houses, for example. And, since immigrants and US-born workers don’t usually compete for the same jobs, immigrants complement U.S.-born workers by boosting them into higher paying positions that require different skills.

High-skilled workers are also essential because they bring new ideas that invigorate our economy and workforce. Darrell West, the Vice President of the Brookings Institution, made the compelling example that Google, Yahoo, and Intel were founded not only by Americans, but also by foreign-born innovators. Imagine if these companies were not American, but instead Hungarian, Russian, and Taiwanese?

Fewer Americans and exponentially more foreign students are enrolling in advanced degree programs, especially science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. According to Steve Hyman, Provost at Harvard University, 70% of students at Harvard Medical School are foreign-born. Only 65,000 green cards for employment are granted annually, far below the number of eligible candidates.

We need to make it easier for this young talent to be here. Lydia Tamez from the Microsoft Corporation said that hiring young professionals creates jobs, sharing one story about an immigrant who started a business and created 10 jobs – after waiting many, many years to be granted a green card. Unfortunately, many graduate students are being educated here, but are unable to stay. This is an economic loss for the U.S., and to stay competitive in the global economy, we have an interest in keeping brilliant people here, especially if they want to be here.

The last point I found interesting was one made by John Wilhelm, the President of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. He argued that that welcoming immigrants and taking care of them is a security issue. Economic ties between people here in the U.S. and their families at home can help us improve international relations!  “Why wouldn’t we let those Chinese students in those labs stay here if they want to? Wouldn’t that help us integrate with Asia a heck of a lot better than trying to build taller and taller fences?” I think he has a point, and I can’t help but think it fits along the lines of FCNL’s Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict program which advocates for diplomacy, development and international cooperation in foreign policy.

To put it plainly, I learned a ton. It’s refreshing to see the discussion on immigration step away from emotional politics and focus on facts. For more facts, you can check out the report (see the link above) or listen to the whole forum on the event’s website.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lee Cole-Chu permalink
    October 8, 2010 12:50 am

    It’s a very big and complex world. I am very proud of your commitment to understanding and contributing to it, Hannah.

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